Every day, our mind has to make 33,000 decisions.
Although this number seems to vary on a day to day basis, let’s make the assumption every day we’re making many decisions, and there is a certain irony when it comes to decision making because so many people I work with will come to me because they have problems making decisions. When I tell them you make 33,000 decisions a day regardless, they’ll often say, “Literally I make no decisions at all. That’s why I’m here. That’s one of the problems I have.”
If we make 33,000 decisions, the mind couldn’t possibly have the processing speed to be able to make those consciously, so we use our unconscious mind, and 95% of the actions we take or the decisions we make daily are dealt with by the unconscious.
The unconscious mind is responsible for regulating the body; it keeps your heart beating, keeps your breathing going, and your legs walking, etc. It understands those processes, those procedures, and it’s got everything ticking over, and it doesn’t need to make you aware it’s doing it, it’s got it all in the bag and taking care of for you. All that remains is for you to make decisions for the remaining 5%, to do this the decision is brought into your conscious awareness, it makes it known if there’s something you need to decide on, and then you’ll proactively make a decision.
An excellent example of the conscious and the unconscious at work is if you work in a job where you wear a set uniform each day. The chances are when it comes to you having to get up in the morning and get dressed, and your unconscious mind is going to decide what it is you need to wear, with no necessity for you to think about it. Alternatively, if you work in a job where you get to select what you wear, then this becomes more of a conscious decision. There’s a point in the day at which you’ve got to think about what is it you want to wear today; a decision made consciously rather than unconsciously.
How does your mind make all of those decisions on your behalf? Imagine a catalogue, a rule book, or a guidance pack. The unconscious says, “Here’s the operation manual. Here’s exactly what we do in this type of situation.” It does this based on processes it’s learned over time.
Here’s the key to your long term well-being and success – having an understanding of what those processes are and whether or not they’re working for you. If they’re not, then proactively doing something to change them.
Unlike regulating our heartbeat or breathing, which are processes passed to us genetically where we know exactly what to do there; there are other processes learnt over time. An excellent example of this is brushing your teeth. When you get up in the morning, you go into the bathroom, grab your toothbrush and start brushing your teeth. Maybe even the trigger to begin brushing your teeth is unconscious, not something you think about, but you know when you walk into the bathroom in the morning, you grab your toothbrush, and you start brushing. As the toothbrush goes into your mouth, your unconscious mind goes, “Hey, think about something else, maybe the day ahead of you.” Maybe this is the point of the day where you start thinking about what you’re going to wear, but the one thing you don’t need to do is think about how to brush your teeth. The reason you don’t have to think about how to brush your teeth is your mind has this covered for you, it’s a process it’s seen numerous times and has learnt it well and automated it.
The unconscious mind has noticed a pattern of behaviour and has made it an unconscious program. An unconscious program is running automatically without you thinking about it. Now, that’s incredibly sophisticated, and that’s something we all want. The challenge we have is when the mind creates patterns or programs of behaviour or recognises them, and they don’t work in our favour.
For example, if you are a smoker, any time you’ve got up in the morning, your mind has noticed you go out and have a cigarette. These will have been conscious decisions initially, I promise you! You’ll have thought every morning, “I just need to have a cig.” Once the unconscious has recognised this is what you do in the morning, it just becomes something which happens entirely automatically.
Equally, smoking and other similar habits, such as overeating, compulsive spending, over-exercising, can all become ways we deal with stress. At the point at which the body experiences stress and register the release of its chemicals, if you’ve combated stress by using inappropriate or unwanted behaviour such as smoking, the mind will have recognised this as a program, recognised a process takes place. So, it’ll move you straight from the stress situation into going out and having a cigarette, and that can be a hard habit to break.
An excellent example of this is a client I worked with who was a compulsive over eater, and I remember she was doing well on her coaching program. We’d worked through changing processes and automated programs, and she had many her habits under control. She came back to a coaching session and remarked to me she felt sad and guilty because she was sat watching television, and she doesn’t know what happened, it was almost like a haze, and the next thing she knew, she was stood in the kitchen, and she was eating a gateaux. Obviously, we had a conversation about how not having gateaux in the fridge would have been a good starting point, but she did confirm it was there for her children, so we let her off for that one. She remarked she was eating this gateaux, and at no point had she made a conscious decision to do so. What we needed to identify is was there something on the television that triggered her to have a specific response where that certain response has been self-medicating through your overeating. Imagine at some point the television made her have a thought, ‘I’m not thin enough. I’m not confident enough. I’m not happy’, and this triggered an instant program to run in her unconscious mind, “Hey, when you feel like this, what we do is we go in the fridge, and we eat something.” So although she felt guilty, there was also an element of it being her unconscious mind working against her but for the greater good.
Here’s the key, the unconscious mind doesn’t do anything to harm us intentionally, but it is, as I said earlier, a slave to us, so it does what it thinks we want it to do when it thinks we want it to do it. What we’ve got to get into the habit of doing is getting rid of the programs that don’t work for us and putting in place programs that do. So, what’s the key to getting rid of programs we no longer want in place?
Let’s begin by talking about how the mind works. This theory has been taken directly from neuro-linguistic programming. It’s one of the types of therapies I practice as a Life Coach. Neuroscience is making leaps and bounds at the moment, and the numbers I reference are likely to change over time, and different theories will come to light. However, the process is one I found to hold, regardless of whether or not the numbers increase or decrease over time.
At any given moment, our mind is dealing with 2,000,000 pieces of information, and this is what we class as being the ‘external event’, the environment around us, at any given time. It takes information in through our five senses, sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. In neuro-linguistic programming, we also include a sixth sense, not necessarily you seeing dead people, although if you do, we would include as part of your experience of the world and part of your external events, but in this sense, we mean the voice in your head. So, as you go through life, you’ll recognise you’ve got a little voice in your head narrating the world around you. Unfortunately, the voice in my head remains being my voice, whereas I’ve always had a feeling I’d prefer Morgan Freeman to be narrating my life. With all these senses always alert, the mind has to filter all of the information available to it.
The mind is contending with 2,000,000 pieces of information every second; therefore it completes a process of getting this information down into what would accept as manageable chunks. The volume of chunks it wants to break down to is between seven or nine. You’ll sometimes have heard about the ‘rule of seven’, how often within marketing we can remember the first seven specific products. If I say to you, “Now, name to me seven companies that have washing detergents,” the chances are you could list the first seven, and then we’d start struggling. So, maybe you’ll make it to nine, but usually, the mind can remember seven to nine things at any one time, and that might be down to the fact the mind likes to break things down into seven to nine chunks.
Are you keeping up? In summary, so the mind can make sense of the world around it without being completely overwhelmed; we have 2,000,000 pieces of information every second being broken down into seven to nine chunks. The mind completes this chunking exercise through a process of distorting, deleting, and generalising the information around you at any given moment.
Distortions are the mind’s way of making sense of the world around it, and an example of a visual distortion might be looking up at the clouds and instantly recognising an image or a face. Often because the mind wants to make sense of the world around it, so we’ll distort the cloud for it to look like something else and therefore make sense.
Deletion is one of the primary ways in which will get rid of information. Unconsciously we’ll start to delete information the mind doesn’t believe is required at this time. So often, when I’m delivering talks, for example, I will go through a process of evidencing how the people present are deleting information the mind doesn’t think they need at the time. I’ll share how they’ve been focusing on me, listening to what I’m saying, watching the slides behind me, and have been deleting all of the other information available to them, because the mind has decided it’s not needed to meet the objective of listening to a talk. I’ll ask the room to go silent, firstly, and we’ll take an opportunity to listen and see what we can hear from the environment around us, sounds that will have been there all the time, but the mind hasn’t been registering them — pieces of information that have been deleted.
As you read this now, explore what you can notice in the room that you haven’t seen before. The sensations you’re feeling around your body, maybe your bum in the seat while you read this, along with any smells or tastes. So a lot of the time, our mind’s deleting the information available to us, only taking in what it believes is important at the present moment.
Finally, we generalise. Generalisation is the clustering together of pieces of information to get them down into a chunk. An excellent example of this is if you go to a wedding and the buffet opens. The wedding toastmaster will proclaim the food is now ready, and food in itself is a generalisation, similar to the word buffet. It conjures for us images of what’s going to be included on the buffet table and what types of food might be there. However, as your mind looks at the buffet table, initially, in that split second, all it sees is ‘food’. Then, if it wanted to, it could start de-generalising the food and identifying more information from the food table, this helps you consciously decide on what you want to put on your plate.
The big question now, ‘How does our mind decide what distortions to make, what information to delete, and how to generalise the remaining information?’ Our mind completes this filtering process from 2,000,000 pieces of information down to the seven or nine chunks by basing it on our beliefs, our memories, and our past decisions. This is one of the reasons why I think it is so important for people to have an in-depth understanding of themselves, what’s the core of who they are? What memories do you have, what beliefs do you have, and what past decisions have you made? Only when you know these in as much detail as possible can you understand why you take the actions you take.
Let’s first take beliefs, which in itself is a vast topic, because you have so many beliefs about every aspect of the world around you, and these were created from a very young age. This is why sometimes, within psychotherapy, you’ll have many people saying it’s ‘your parents screw you up’ because they’ll have helped you initially to create your belief system. A simple example I like to give is when you see a chair, and maybe you’re sat in a chair now, you have a belief of what a chair does. You know you’re going to be able to pull it out, you know you’re going to be able to sit down and the chair is going to hold your weight. From a very young age, you’ve known exactly what it is a chair does and what it is a chair is there for.
Now obviously, beyond the beliefs of just the physical environment around us, we hold beliefs about ourselves. Maybe we believe we’re not confident, or we’re not pretty enough, or not clever enough. What happens then is our mind is filtering the world around us, taking the information it thinks is important to make our beliefs true, it seeks to validate what we believe. Now here’s the key, in the majority situations, our mind wants to prove us right. The unconscious mind is a servant to us, and it wants to make sure it’s giving us the information it thinks we’re looking for that fits in with our understanding of our world. It can often take a lot for us to break a belief. We’ve got to have a massive shift within our lives for us to have an understanding a belief is no longer true.
Then we move to past decisions. Our mind will filter the information based on past decisions we have made and will look for similar situations where you had to make a decision that fits the type of environment you’re in currently. If we go back to our chair example, you walk into a party, and everybody’s sat around a table, and as your mind filters the information and sees the chair it knows it has a belief about what a chair does, it will also then draw on times you’ve pulled a chair out and sat down. So, there are many past decisions you’ve made that have all paid off favourably for you. Take the chair out, take a seat, and this will hold your weight and allow you to sit down for the rest of the evening while you eat the delicious buffet food we discussed earlier.
Past decisions go on to make our memories. So, suddenly now, you’ve created an additional memory of sitting on a chair, and the chair holding your weight, and being at a party, and being able to sit there all night. So, our memories play a pivotal part in supporting us to break the 2,000,000 pieces of information down to seven or nine chunks.
So what does the mind do when it’s taken the 2,000,000 pieces of information? It’s called on its internal resources of understanding our beliefs, our past decisions, and our memories, and using these, it’s decided what information to distort, what to delete, and what to generalise. Now it creates our external behaviour, ultimately, the action we take. An example of external behaviour, again, walking into a party, seeing table and chairs, and then making the decision to sit in the chair. All of this is happening in an instant, in a split second almost, the mind’s taken the 2,000,000 pieces of information available; distorting, deleting, generalising, and resulting in your bottom firmly placed on a chair.
Let’s return to one of those more prominent beliefs, something less physical, confidence, for example, as this is often something where many people will experience a challenge. So, if you have the belief you’re not confident, your mind will draw on past decisions you’ve made not to put yourself in a position where your confidence is tested. It will draw on a first memory of not being confident, often going back to our formative age of nought to seven. Maybe this event was a common thing, like having to stand up in school and read a story to a class and making mistakes leading to your mind registering this isn’t the sort of thing you should do again. Searching around for what this means, and then maybe a parent or a teacher will mislabel the situation and tell you, “Maybe you’re not a confident person. Maybe you’re shy, maybe standing up in front of people isn’t something you can do.” You now have a memory of potentially not being confident, and then you’ve built the belief of not being confident as well.
What happens next is you’ll find yourself in situations, as a child you attended a family party, where the family say, “Tell us about your day,” “Read us a poem,” or “Sing us a song,” You go ‘shy’ and you decide this is something you can’t do. What’s happened now is you’ve made a decision not to take action because you’re not confident. As your mind digs around in there for all of the information to be able to break the information down, it will present to you, ‘we have a belief you’re not confident, we have lots of past decisions similar to this situation you’re currently in, and of those past decisions, we always decide not to do something like this. We’ve also got loads of memories of when we’ve not done this’
There’s a straightforward overview of how the mind works. In summary, at any given second, your mind’s dealing with an external event of made up of 2,000,000 pieces of information. This is pretty overwhelming, so the mind knows it has to be able to make sense of the world around you, and it will do this by asking your mind what it believes, what past decisions have been made similar to this, and what memories there are that are similar to this type of situation. Then using a process of distorting, deleting, and generalising information, it will, in a split second, create your behaviour.
Ultimately, what we believe is what we proactively go out and seek, make decisions on, and for which we make memories. This is one of the reasons I work with clients to start identifying and reviewing what beliefs they hold, what past decisions they have made and what memories they have of this belief being in place.
Once we can start challenging and unlocking this system, we can start changing what the mind distorts, deletes, and generalises, therefore changing your external behaviour. Support you in creating a better life.